The Black Brilliance Research Project beginning to end, part 3

This is part three of a four-part series looking at the Black Brilliance Project from beginning to end and attempting to shine a light on what was going on behind the scenes, where things went wrong, and how the money was ultimately spent.

Part 1: the money and the contract

Part 2: the research and the break-up

Part 3: following the money

Part 4: accountability and other parting thoughts

Also, here is a page with a compilation of the key documents and records from the Black Brilliance Project.

Part III: Following the Money

In the end, where did all the money go? Given the convoluted – and shifting – subcontractor and sub-sub-contractor relationships in this project that often didn’t align with who was actually making payments, it took several weeks of work for SCC Insight to unpack all of the financial details into an understandable form. But at the highest level, the $3 million was spent as follows:

  • Freedom Project received $830,000: $75,000 for its administrative payroll expenses, $295,000 for its “fiscal sponsor” fee, and $460,000 in payroll expenses for its researchers.
  • King County Equity Now received $385,000: $135,000 in payroll expenses for its researchers, and $250,000 to cover its administrative expenses.
  • Six nonprofit organizations together received $1.62 million for conducting research as part of the project: $913,000 during King County Equity Now’s tenure, and $707,000 during Freedom Project’s.
  • A set of smaller individual researchers and business services consultants collectively received about $160,000.

The six research organizations that in sum were paid $1.62 million are:

  • Bridging Cultural Gaps: $443,230
  • East African Community Services: $722,114
  • Black Trans Prayer Group, through Interfaith Working Group: $116,025
  • The Silent Task Force: $160,030
  • Sacred Community Connections: $78,260
  • Forever Safe Spaces, through the Harriet Tubman Foundation: $103,060

While illuminating in one sense, these numbers barely scratch the surface in understanding whether the money was well spent. So let’s add some context.

First, how much was spent on administrative overhead?  Between Freedom Project and King County Equity Now, $620,000 went to overhead; that’s just over 20%, on the high end of the acceptable range for a nonprofit that administers programs (versus one that just provides grants).

Second, how does it compare to the budget that was originally proposed for the project? Frankly, it doesn’t. The original “blueprint” document in June 2020 proposes $1.1 million for staffing, training, support and materials; and the remainder across several additional categories, including $375,000 for removing institutional barriers to participation and $500,000 for cash assistance and direct support for community members. An updated budget proposal from last September increases the staffing, training, support and materials to $1.7 million, with smaller amounts in several other categories (though still $500,000 for cash assistance and direct support.  But the actual spend on the project was almost entirely payroll expenses, with two exceptions: part of KCEN’s $250,000 administrative overhead charge goes to other hard costs, and East African Community Services has substantial line-items for translation services. But there were large categories in the proposed budget where there are essentially no recorded actual expenses – including cash and direct assistance for community members. It was all paid out to researchers instead.

There is certainly a school of thought that this might be a good thing: more money for the people doing the work. Though BIPOC communities often make compelling arguments that too many community members in low-income jobs are asked to “volunteer” their time for these kinds of community-building efforts and ought to be compensated. But the value in paying out more money to researchers is tied to the belief that doing so will result in more results – or at the very least, more research activity (a certain percentage of research activity, by its nature, will “dead end” and not produce usable results).  Research activities and results are always open to critiques of the quality of the work, no less so for the Black Brilliance Research Project; but here, there are some compelling reasons to also question the quantity of work that was done in comparison to the amount paid to do it.

One useful – if admittedly imperfect – proxy we have for research contributions is the project’s final report; though we need to dissect it a bit first. The final report is a whopping 1,292 pages; however, 770 pages are reprints of third-party documents that required no writing or editing on the part of the Black Brilliance research team (we include the 163-page “research cookbook” in that list while acknowledging the nuance that while it was authored by the research team leaders, it was written early on as a training manual for new researchers and doesn’t reflect the output of research efforts). The main report is 108 pages and can be considered a collaborative effort of all participants. Finally, there are 402 pages of reports from individual research projects.

The largest contributor to the project reports is Freedom Project, whose 22 researchers generated 208 pages and a video and were paid $535,000. The smallest is Sacred Community Connections, who contributed five pages – of which most is an advertisement for the organization – and was paid $78,000. East African Community Services was paid the most: $722,000 for 80 pages from its 15 researchers. Two contributions are particularly head-scratching: Bridging Cultural Gaps was paid $443,000 for 19 researchers who contributed 20 pages (most of which are a PowerPoint slide deck); and Black Trans Prayer Group, a Philadelphia-based organization, was paid $116,000 for five researchers who contributed eight pages and a promise for a video to be delivered in 2022.

But the set of new contracts that Freedom Project signed when it took over the project from KCEN in February deserve special scrutiny. The contracts purport to pay the organizations’ researchers for ongoing work in 2021, after the main research work concluded in mid-December. As hard as it may be to believe, the new subcontracts are actually worse than the original contract between the city and Freedom Project: they are all fixed-amount contracts, sufficient to pay for all of the organizations’ researchers full-time for at least the first two months of the year – regardless of how many hours were worked. Most of the contracts contain the same, ever-so-brief, scope of work: “reading preliminary report and offering edits, doing translations for data collection, reviewing and drafting materials for final report, editing final report. Translating website materials.” Altogether the $823,000 paid across these contracts is the equivalent of over 22,000 hours of paid time. And that compels us to ask: how much work was in fact done in January and February?

According to the invoices submitted by the organizations who signed the new contracts, enough to bill the full amount. Conveniently, it appears that Freedom Project supplied each of them with a fill-in-the-blank invoice, and each completed it such as to charge enough hours across several categories of work to match precisely the full amount of their fixed-price contract.

Shaun Glaze’s $63,000 contract and invoices stand out in particular, both for the fact that Glaze claimed to be a volunteer for the project right up until early February but was paid retroactively back to January 1; and for the $300 per hour rate charged for 120 hours of project facilitation. To be sure, Glaze put in countless hours, working tirelessly and in good faith to lead the effort, and perhaps more than anyone deserves to be paid for their efforts;  but not while also taking credit as a volunteer, and probably not at $300 per hour. By comparison, during the nine months that Glaze worked for the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning in 2020 they were paid $45.34 per hour.

Aligning these contracts with the timeline of the Black Brilliance project raises even more questions. The first draft of the preliminary report was submitted to the City Council on December 18 and updated on January 12; the final report was delivered on February 22. So the window of opportunity to book billable hours on the final report was somewhere between five and eight weeks. Even assuming that all of the organizations’ researchers were still active on the project, and allowing for a generous amount of time spent providing feedback on the 100 pages of main report, the number of paid hours claimed to have been worked on the final report is just not credible – especially when one looks at what actually changed between the preliminary and the final report.

There were two notable changes between the preliminary and final versions of the project report:

  1. The 100-page main section was reorganized, though largely containing the same information;
  2. The Silent Task Force did a major rewrite of its project report in the appendix, expanding it from 13 pages to 30.

Other than the addition of more reprinted third-party materials (including 293 pages of City Council district profiles) and the reordering of a couple of reports, the rest of the changes were minor: based on feedback from City Council staff, some of the research groups added 2-3 pages at the front of their project report in order to introduce their research goals, but otherwise left their report unchanged. There is no evidence that thousands of hours were spent in revising the final report before its submission, or in related tasks.

The inescapable conclusion is that Freedom Project’s $823,000 of new contracts, most signed only a few days before the final report was delivered, had little to do with work on the final report or other tasks to meet the requirements of its contract with the city. The Black Brilliance researchers demanded that their contracts be renewed, and Freedom Project complied, independent of how much work there was for them to do.

There is one other topic related to how the $3 million was spent that needs attention: Freedom Project’s fiscal sponsorship fee. You may recall that in its original contract with King County Equity Now, Freedom Project was entitled to a 5% fee – $150,000 – for its services as fiscal sponsor. But when it dissolved its agreement with KCEN, that provision also went away. In the final financial report, filed in June 2021, Freedom Project instead doubled its fiscal sponsorship fee to 10%, or $300,000. Since Freedom Project’s contract with the city makes no mention of such a fee, it was apparently able to arbitrarily charge whatever it wanted instead.

The argument in support of Freedom Project doubling its fee is that with KCEN’s removal from the project, it was forced to assume those duties and thus had extra responsibilities. To that end, when asked why it doubled its fee, Freedom Project responded (via email), “In February, the FSA was terminated and we went from holding the project dually (with the FSA in place) to holding it independently. When we held it independently, our responsibility increased and the terms of the original FSA no longer applied.”

Two notes on this: first, Freedom Project terminated its contracted with KCEN on February 3, only three weeks before the final report was delivered and at a point when nearly all of the work was done, so there was little left to manage. Second, all throughout the project Freedom Project also directly billed payroll expenses for its administrative staff, those doing the work that the 5% fiscal sponsorship fee was supposed to cover. So essentially it had been double-billing for fiscal sponsorship. There is no provision in the contract it had with KCEN for billing payroll expenses; but again, once that contract was terminated there was no provision guiding what Freedom Project was allowed to charge. When asked for comment on this, Morales’ chief of staff was unconcerned.

Next: Accountability, and Some Parting Thoughts

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